TALLAHASSEE--Jackson Simmons had been on this earth for 20 years before he got the kind of altitude he enjoyed on Saturday.
Simmons had just finished playing 15 key minutes, grabbing four offensive rebounds, scoring eight points and blocking a shot in Carolina's gritty 77-72 win at Florida State. The final second was ticking off the Tucker Center clock, and the Seminoles had conceded defeat. The five Tar Heels on the court were walking back to a happy UNC bench, preparing to shake hands with the defeated home team.
The fifth of those players, however, still had plenty of energy. Suddenly, here came a grinning Simmons at full Simmons speed--look, it's not lightning fast, but as the Seminoles found out, it's plenty fast enough. He spotted Desmond Hubert, who had an equally wide grin on his face. Simmons took one big step to gather himself, jumped off two feet, and soared...well, he leaped...OK, it was a jump...into the air and delivered a mighty midair chest bump to Hubert.
"I didn't know I could get that high," said Simmons, who celebrated his 20th birthday with his best game as a Tar Heel. "That's what adrenaline does for you, I guess. Usually, when you get older you lose some vertical."
He's not over the hill just yet. He proved it in those 15 minutes against FSU. On an afternoon when every player in the rotation made at least one essential play to the victory (there will be lots of talk about P.J. Hairston's 23 points, but don't forget that the Tar Heels closed the game on a 12-4 run after his hustle forced a jump ball on what looked like a wide-open Seminole layup), you could honestly, truly say this: Carolina does not win this game without Jackson Simmons.
Try saying those words out loud. It's almost impossible to do without it turning your lips into at least a little bit of a smile.
In a downright jubilant locker room, the sophomore from Webster, N.C., still seemed wired.
"It was all new territory for me," he said. "I learned on the fly. I tried to do what was best..."
"That win feels so good!" Whoops, sorry for the interruption. That was Dexter Strickland, across the euphoric locker room. He had been in tears after the loss to Miami. Less than forty-eight hours later, he was unable to contain his excitement. If anyone ever wonders why people play team sports, it was a pretty strong testament.
Back to Simmons. He looked over at Strickland and grinned, happy for himself and happy for Strickland and happy for, well, everyone. "...I just tried to do what was best for the team," he continued. "I wanted to set screens, bring energy, and it worked out for me."
It worked out for everybody. About those screens: a Jackson Simmons screen is sturdy. Against Florida State, where any glimmer of offensive daylight is precious, Simmons was a force trying to free Tar Heel shooters for an open shot.
"He screens hard," said Marcus Paige, who was the beneficiary of some of those picks. "We had four guards in the game, so they couldn't switch those screens, and he was really giving us an advantage down the stretch. He made some really, really big plays. He gave us so much energy."
During the 15 minutes he was on the floor, Carolina was +15. Let's be honest: when I woke up this morning, I was not expecting to write this sentence about the player who had collected 3 DNPs in the past five games and had played a grand total of 13 minutes in the past month, but here it is:
Jackson Simmons did it all.
He screened. You've already heard about that. He rebounded--his four offensive rebounds turned into eight Tar Heel points. He dove on the floor for loose balls. He communicated on defense. "Reggie!" he barked late in the game as the Seminoles, who had just made a substitution, prepared to shoot a late-game free throw. "I've got number 10." That might seem like a little thing, but it's a winning little thing.
He passed, hitting Bullock with a textbook backdoor assist late in the first half. He did it exactly like every time Carolina has practiced the play, which is virtually every day. He took a hard dribble towards midcourt, sold the idea that he was going back to the middle, and suddenly pivoted and fired a laser to a cutting Bullock. The play belonged on an instructional tape.
He defended, part of a Tar Heel interior defense that limited Florida State to 13-of-28 from two-point range. He boxed out, part of a dominating rebounding effort that saw Carolina outrebound the big, tough 'Noles 41-19. The Tar Heels had as many offensive rebounds in the game as Florida State had total rebounds, and with 31 missed field goals, more than half the time they missed a shot, they corralled the miss.
And, oh yes, Jackson Simmons scored. Remember when Serge Zwikker would take that baseline jumper and the uneducated in the gym cringed, but you felt great about it because he made it so often? We haven't quite reached that point yet with the Simmons jumper from the short wing, but he's drained it in two straight games. He also managed to go to the free throw line in an important situation--Carolina was down three points with under six minutes to play--and knock down both of them.
Of course he did. If this game had been at the Smith Center, it is an absolute certainty that the crowd's cheers of "Jack-son Simm-ons" would have been echoing off the jerseys in the rafters.
You know what made it so much more fun to watch? Simmons was happy about his performance, but his teammates might have been even happier for him. Two Tar Heels--Hubert and Bullock--independently and voluntarily singled out Simmons as the hardest worker on the team. What makes sports fun is that all those extra shots, all that time in the weight room, all those hours of working and trying to get better--it all felt worth it in 15 minutes of court time. You do all of that because this might happen. It probably won't. But it might. It could.
"He works so hard," Hubert said. "For him to get that opportunity in a big-time game and play so well. I was so, so happy for him."
Simmons had extensive postgame media obligations, with lots of questions from the print media and a one-on-one interview with the Tar Heel Sports Network. By the time he finished talking to everyone, he was the only player who hadn't showered, and some of his teammates were already dressed and headed for the bus.
Simmons grabbed a towel and sheepishly hustled across the locker room. "I don't want to be the last one on the bus," he said.
"Jackson," said J.P. Tokoto, "you earned it."